Jul 272011
 

A great (and somewhat snarky) piece by intern Katie Davis on frequent ways people use unacceptable language, and the excuses they make about it once they are called out. Katie also makes some suggestions as to ways to actually talk to pe0ple about why it’s not ok/can be hurtful to use language in such ways.

Sometimes I think that narrow-mindedness is like the flu: it’s highly unpleasant, contagious, and comes in waves. It’s been a challenging week for me, one in which I’ve been consistently privy to the homophobic/transphobic/queerphobic remarks of the people around me. I’m not talking about teaching moments in the classroom–– I’m talking about day-to-day interactions with strangers, coworkers, friends, and family. And while listening to hatred and prejudice is upsetting enough, I’ve found myself even angrier and more exasperated by the “defenses” posited by those whom I’ve confronted about their comments.

As far as bad excuses for bad behavior go, there seem to be a few particularly common ones that folks caught using hate speech like to toss around. Though I sometimes feel like responding to these excuses with nothing but a shocked silence or an “Um, NO,” I’ve learned over the years that, in order to (a) present an argument coherent enough to potentially change the offending party’s way of speaking in the future and (b) prevent my own head from exploding in frustration, it’s best for me to keep a few good rejoinders in my back pocket. These are some of the common lame excuses I’ve
heard and some of the more successful arguments I’ve made in response.

1. The Michael Scott Defense

Excuseplanation: “I wasn’t using [insert homophobic slur] to talk about gay people, I was using it to talk about something that I think is stupid.”

I call this one the Michael Scott Defense because there’s a line on The Office where Steve Carell’s socially inept character, Michael Scott, responds to
accusations of homophobic speech by remarking: “Did you know that gay used to mean ‘happy?’ When I was growing up, it meant ‘lame.’” While the line’s meant to highlight the character’s insensitivity and foolishness, there really are people (some of whom I’ve encountered) who feel that it’s entirely acceptable to use homophobic slurs or use terms associated with the LGBTQ community as slurs to talk about things they dislike.

Response: “No one person, including you, gets to choose the meaning of words. You may say that you weren’t using that word to refer to gay/bisexual/trans/queer people, but historically that word has been used to refer to people who identify as such. When you use ‘gay,’ for example, when you really mean ‘stupid,’ you’re saying essentially that gay=stupid. And that’s a huge problem. If what you mean is that rush hour in traffic is awful, why not just say that? You’re message will be more clear, and you won’t offend people.”

2. The “Behind Their Back” Defense

Excuseplanation: “Well, I would never call an actual gay person [insert slur].”
Ughh. I hear this one way too frequently, often when people don’t know that I’m queer. This excuse usually translates into either “I didn’t mean it that way” (See The Michael Scott Defense) or “I would never say that to his/her/hir face.”

Response: “Hmm. So you have the ability to discern the sexuality of every person you meet? Don’t you think it’s possible that you could encounter an ‘actual gay person’ and not even know it? Anyways, if you know that that’s an offensive enough term that you wouldn’t say it to an LGBTQ person’s face, why would you say it at all?”

3. The Comedian Defense

Excuseplanation: “It was a joke! [Comedian/Comedy show] says it all the time!”

This excuse tends to put me on the defensive: I love comedy, and I think going through life with a sense of humor is important. But that doesn’t mean I have to see humor in “jokes” that simply restate social prejudices. That kind of comedy’s not just offensive–– it’s also just plain lazy.

Response: “Aren’t good jokes supposed to change the way we think? I have a sense of humor, but I don’t really see the ‘joke’ in denigrating a minority group. You’re free to enjoy whatever kind of comedy you like, but I think I’d rather not join you in that one.”

Feel free to use these in your own lives, or add other excuses/replies in the comments
section!

Jul 152011
 

This week, my fabulous intern Katie Davis talks about the identity of asexuality, which is often left out of conversations regarding sexuality. She brings up some great points, as well as resources for those interested in learning more!

The oft-repeated mantra amongst sex educators is that sexuality is a spectrum.
People can identify as gay, straight, and everything in between, including bisexual, queer,
and questioning.” In the classes I’ve taught, this has been my mantra, my way of
explaining the rich diversity of human experience.

But recently, after stumbling across Asexuality.org, the homepage of the Asexual
Visibility and Education Network (AVEN), I came to realize that this framework is not
nearly as inclusive as it needs to be. AVEN, which was founded in 2001, focuses on
fostering a sense of community amongst asexual people and creating acceptance and
discussion of asexuality in the public sphere. In addition to acting as the central hub for
asexuality-related research, news coverage, and personal accounts, AVEN also offers
discussion forums, a newsletter, and an online store stocked with t-shirts
reading “Asexy” and “Asexuality: It’s not just for amoebas anymore!”

Although, as with anything else, AVEN members possess a variety of different
opinions and experiences, the feeling of being socially silenced appears to be widely
shared across the asexual community. The site’s FAQ section, for example, addresses
some of the difficulties of “living in a society where everyone is assumed to be sexual
and where the media, especially soaps and advertising, portray everyone as sexual and
constantly tempted by sex.” In his personal blog, Love From the Asexual Underground,
AVEN founder David Jay writes eloquently about the daily challenges of translating
sexual language into something true to his identity and experiences. For Jay and other
asexual-identified people, my sexuality spectrum is hardly a liberating identificatory
framework, as it leaves off an entire negative region.

It’s an important criticism, one that’s forced me to radically reconsider how I
should understand and teach sexuality. For sex educators/activists who are forced to
confront the myriad ways in which sexuality is stifled and policed, it may be tempting
to portray things like desire, attraction, and libido as universal experiences. In a country
that still frequently treats sex education as a non-necessity, many of us find ourselves
almost shouting about the importance of sexuality in all aspects of society. I certainly
know that in my own teaching efforts, I’ve attempted to combat societal shaming by
characterizing sexuality as a normal, even key component of the human condition. And,
of course, for many people it is. However, as long as there are people who identify
as asexual–– and, according to AVEN, the numbers of people taking on said title are
steadily growing–– we have to be vigilante about assuming sexuality in our students.

How can we teach about sexuality in a way that is also inclusive of asexuality?
How can we better educate ourselves about asexuality and the diversity of asexual
experiences? And how can we assist the asexual community in its continued struggle for
visibility and acceptance? These are not easy questions, but they’re absolutely topics that
sex educators and all other folks dedicated to sexual (or asexual, for that matter) equality
need to begin to address.

For more information about asexuality, go to AVEN’s website or check out David
Jay’s Love From the Asexual Underground.

Jul 082011
 

This is another piece written by Intern Katie Davis about some of the lessons she has learned in her experience of becoming a sex educator. It follows along with Lessons Learned from A Sex Educator: Part 1, as published last week.

One of the major maxims repeated to me over the course of my trainings to
become a sex educator went something along the lines of “Expect that your students will
have a diversity of opinions on sensitive topics. Be sure not to alienate any of them.”
Now, that’s pretty sound advice: as I’ve already mentioned in my previous post, one
surefire way of alienating students is to ignore the variety of ways in which their thoughts
and experiences differ from one’s own. If I went into a classroom with the expectation
that students shared my perspective of the world, I’d be doing considerable damage to the
safety of the space and to my class’s potential for learning.

But there are times when showing sensitivity to a diversity of opinions isn’t
easy, when the line between mindfulness and moral relativism isn’t clearly drawn.
The sex education courses I teach cover (though not nearly comprehensively enough)
LGBTQ issues/identities. When we reach this segment of the curriculum, invariably
at least one of the students balks. Common negative responses to our LGBTQI unit
(which emphasizes anti-bullying as well as differences between gender identity, sex, and
sexuality) include:

“That’s nasty!”
“I go to church, and my church says that gay people are just plain wrong.”
“I don’t care if someone’s gay, just don’t go around flaunting it.”
“I’d never say something bad to a gay guy if he was just doing his own thing,
but if he comes up and tries to talk to me or something, I’m going to punch him.
Because he probably wanted to hit on me.”

These are moments when I’m forced to pause and consider how to answer
in a way that doesn’t shut down the conversation but also doesn’t give a free pass to
prejudice. The right of LGBTQI folks (myself included!) to live happy, complete,
governmentally-recognized lives free of harassment, fear, and discrimination is not up for
debate in my mind. Yet, it seems that if I ever want to make progress with students who
know only homophobia, I must patiently engage in that debate. This brings me to lesson

#3.  There is such a thing as productive discomfort.

I’ve met some educators who believe that, on supposed “matters of opinion,”
it’s wrong to question one’s students. I’m not of that mind. I think that, as a teacher/
facilitator/mentor, my job is to challenge my students to understand the origins of their
opinions and to constantly re-examine their belief systems through the lens of new
information and experiences. I tend to answer homophobic remarks, for example, with
more questions:

“Why is this kind of sexual activity nasty to you? Do you think the fact that you
find something nasty means that other people shouldn’t be able to enjoy it if they want to?”
“Different religions have all kinds of different opinions on homosexuality,
bisexuality, etc. There are some churches that claim that homosexuality is
wrong, while there are others that have gay and lesbian leaders. If someone who
identified as a member of the LGBTQI community attended your church, how do
you think they would feel? Do you think they’d be welcomed in?”
“What does it mean to flaunt one’s sexuality? Like going to prom with one’s
partner of choice? Like dancing at that prom? Would you say that heterosexual
people flaunt their sexuality? What’s the difference between ‘flaunting’
and ‘expressing’?”
“Do you think that every gay man who talks to other men is actually trying to
make a move? Are you trying to make a move on every girl you speak to?”

I don’t know that any of these answers are the right ones, but they’ve at least
allowed the conversation to continue. But encouraging students to think critically should
never mean silencing them. If I get the feeling that my student isn’t responding well to
my questions, I need to back off and move on to something new. Because:

3. Sometimes making progress means making concessions.

I never want a student to feel attacked, either by myself or by others. I’ve had
male students vocally oppose abortion, only to be swiftly and angrily silenced by their
female peers. In those moments, it is my job to step in, to validate my student’s right to
an opinion. “You’re not alone in feeling that way. In fact, the media tends to send us
tons of messages that support what you were just saying. Why do you think some of your
classmates might disagree with you?”

It’s a difficult and often deeply frustrating process, remaining true to one’s values
while leaving room in the classroom for the expression of others. But, at the end of
the day, when I doubt myself and feel as though nothing I said was effective, I have to
remember that my goal is not to win a debate. In fact, winning the debate, when it means
compromising the safety of the space, isn’t a win at all. Rather:

4. My goal is just to plant the seed of an idea.

And nothing, ideas included, grows without time, nourishment, and an open
environment.

Jul 012011
 

This post is from one of my fabulous sexuality summer interns, Katie Davis, about some of her experiences learned as a sexuality educator.

-Shanna

I spent the past year volunteering as a sex educator in the public school system
near my college, facilitating discussions on topics ranging from anatomy and physiology
to contraception to healthy communication. One day, while beginning a class on
fertilization with a group of middle school young women, a student raised her hand and
asked my co-facilitators and myself: “Do any of you have kids?”

The question made me pause. At 20, I was one of the older facilitators in our
group of four, but it hardly felt like the sort of question usually directed at me. The
thought of having children had only vaguely entered my consciousness as something I
might one day sort of maybe kind of want to do if I felt emotionally and financially ready
to do so. Furthermore, I’ve always looked young for my age–– it wasn’t until I cut my
hair off last year that I stopped being offered the kids’ menu at restaurants. So the
thought that someone might perceive me as a parent made my head spin.

I apparently wasn’t the only one who was surprised by the question. My co-
facilitators and I looked around at each other for a moment before one began to laugh.
She then replied to the student “No, none of us are parents! None of us are even 21 yet!”
The class stared back at us silently.

And like that we had lost them. We would eventually regain their trust and
respect, but it would take a while, and the rest of that fifty minute period was a wash,
with the students more or less ignoring us. We taught in a district with high teen
pregnancy rates: hence the administration’s desire to run an intensive sex ed workshop
for female students. Likely a significant portion of the young women in our classroom
that day had friends or close relatives who were teen mothers. And instead of responding
in a way that acknowledged their experiences, we made our students feel insulted,
ignored, and misunderstood.

I’m still traveling down the sex education path, and I still sometimes say the
wrong thing, but I’m learning. Above all, I’ve learned the importance of mindfulness, of
self-awareness. Recognizing my own positionality–– as a wealthy, white, cis-gender,
able-bodied queer woman–– has been awkward at times, but it’s undoubtedly made me a
better educator as well as a better student, partner, friend, etc. That’s why the #1 most
important lesson for educators is, for me:

1. Know the limits of your own knowledge.

It would be pretty amazing if everyone adhered to this rule, but it’s one that is
particularly important for educators/mentors to follow. Certainly, when a student asks
me a question to which I don’t know the answer off the top of my head, I’m honest about
my ignorance and I offer a well-researched answer the next time we meet. But it’s much
harder for me to recognize and accept that there are answers I will never know, answers
that are inaccessible to me. The very term “teen pregnancy,” for example, will likely

mean something radically different from what it means for a student whose older sister
dropped out of high school to raise a child. Knowing the limits of my knowledge means
recognizing that I will never fully grasp that latter, personal meaning. I simply don’t
have the same background, life experiences, etc. The best I can do is to challenge and
encourage my students to think critically and define the world for themselves. Which
brings me to lesson #2:

2. People are experts of their own experiences.

Learning is not strictly an in-class activity, and there is no possible way for me to
know what kind of education my students receive in their day to day lives. Great
educators know better than to challenge their students’ experiences of the world.
Rather, they provide students with a new lens through which to examine and understand
experience. Slowly, I am learning to do just this.